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Understanding Emotional Blackmail in the Modern World

Understanding Emotional Blackmail in the Modern World

Published on Jul 20, 2023

Understanding Emotional Blackmail in the Modern World

Key Takeaways

  • Emotional blackmail is when someone tries to use your emotions that you have for them against you. They want to get their needs met and to do that they manipulate you emotionally through various tactics.
  • Emotional blackmail is done using fear, obligation, and guilt against the partner.
  • Going through emotional blackmail is a difficult experience and needs to be helped by the individual themself to get out of such a situation as the partner won’t change.

Emotional blackmail is a term that has been diluted due to its prevalent use in daily life, social media, or any content format, for that matter. It is a commonly used phrase, and everyone has said it or come across it at least once in their lifetime. 

So let’s get to the root of this phrase and try to understand what it truly means. 

Understanding Emotional Blackmail

Emotional blackmail is the manipulation of someone using their own emotions and feelings. This occurs as someone tries to use the feelings that you have for them as a way to get what they want. 

Emotional blackmail is understood as a style of manipulation where someone uses your feelings as a way of controlling behavior and making it so that you see things their way. 

The manipulator might use the information they have, use something that you know and love against you to get their way. Usually, it is in the form of guilt, obligation, fear, or threats. 

What Does Emotional Blackmail Actually Mean? 

Emotional Blackmail: When the People in Your Life Use Fear, Obligation, and Guilt to Manipulate You. is a book that was authored by Dr. Susan Forward. She pioneered the term emotional blackmail back in 1997. 

In that book, Dr. Forward described emotional blackmail as a powerful form of manipulation where people are threatened directly or indirectly. The aim of the threat is to punish if their will is not carried out. The core of the threat is that “if you don’t behave in the way I want, then you will be in trouble.” They might use threats against your reputation, your past, your money, exposing a secret, etc.

They are able to use these threats as they know that they are a valuable person to you and that to keep being together, you will have to do these things that they have asked of you. Also, because the relationship is deep, be it a romantic, friendship, or family relationship, they know your vulnerabilities, history, secrets, and anything else that guarantees your compliance.

They use the knowledge that you seek or want their love or approval and taking it away will make you want to please them and try to win them over. 

What are the Traits of an Emotional Blackmailer? 

Anyone you know can be a blackmailer. You can never look at a person and know if they are emotionally abusive or not. Most of the time, the emotional blackmailer is well-liked by their peers and may not even be considered a threatening person. 

The people can come from any background and can enter your life at any point, but overall these are some of the types of people that resort to emotional blackmail: 

1. Loud and dramatic 

These types of people are well known for creating drama and being loud about their problems. They always seek attention and make themselves look like the victim in any situation by being loud and dramatic about it. 

They make rude comments and make a mountain out of a molehill, and use anything they can to get their way. Their loudness is contested by the people around them wanting them to not create a scene and hence giving into their demands more easily.  

2. Narcissistic 

People with narcissistic traits put people down and think their way is the only right way. In relationships, it might look like they do not take back criticism and they always have to be right. They tend to have the last say in most arguments and discussions and undermine other people’s decisions.

3. Judgemental 

People who are judgemental and critical of others are prone to being emotional blackmailers in their personal relationships. They use fear and guilt to control the situation they are in. They can be intimidating people and they position themselves as the person who knows right from wrong for others. 

In relationships, they can be said to be the moral center of the relationship and they decide or set the tone for the relationship. They can be seen as what is right and wrong in the relationship regardless of the other partner’s feelings. The intimidation is so strong that their partner also starts believing them when they are being told that they are wrong. 

They can be seen with a very condescending tone and an undermining personality. This is not limited to just the relationship, the judgment is so strong that the people around the blackmailer also do not realize if they are doing wrong, they also accept that person. 

4. Low self-esteem individuals 

Since they are afraid or unable to express their true feelings, they can be seen emotionally blackmailing a person as well. They use emotional blackmail by putting you down as well and making you feel inadequate when their self-esteem issues are triggered.

They blame other people for their own powerlessness or insecurities and try to grab the attention of others by doing so. 

5. Passive-aggressive nature

People who have adopted a passive-aggressive mindset definitely use emotional blackmail against people in their life. They inflict hurt and hostility in indirect ways, such as deliberate failure, stubbornness, or through insults and mockery. 

Sarcasm is their biggest personality trait and they use it all the time to deflect from actually saying hurtful things or what they mean truly. They use sarcasm and mean jokes to usually bring out what they actually want from you. Then use it as a defense if called out on it. They cannot communicate straight so they resort to such an antic to emotionally blackmail someone. 

6. Lack of empathy

Some people naturally have low empathy or no empathy at all. They might not relate to your problems or what you are giving them as feedback, as they have no sense of empathy.

They may try to show that at the beginning of the relationship, but you realize very quickly that they do not actually understand the emotional nature you bring to the relationship, that they are not that connected or on that same level. 

In the end, they rationalize what they are doing as a defense for themselves or that you are out to ruin them and they need to protect themselves. They do not see situations from your point of view sometimes. 

7. Blaming others

They do usually take accountability or responsibility for their own actions or feelings so they blame the outcome of the situation or they blame the negative they are feeling on others, especially their partner. 

They fail to see the problem in their actions and blame other people around them for the actions that they took. They see themselves as the victim and try to always defend themselves from that point of view. 

How Does Emotional Blackmail Work? 

As emotional blackmail involves getting their way, they use multiple ways to bring you down and then make it so that it is inevitable that you would want to fulfill their wishes. 

According to Dr. Forward, there are 6 stages of emotional blackmail: 

1. Demand. 

This begins with want from the emotional manipulator, let’s call them X. They want Y to not be around someone so they may subtly make comments that their friend is not a good fit for them, or how they don’t like how they treat you or look at you.  

Y will take these comments, defend them or agree with them but not make it a big deal, brush it off even. Sometimes manipulators will not verbalize directly what they want from you, they will make you guess. X might sulk after the event about the situation enough to make you act on it. 

Even though it sounds like a normal request, it becomes a demand when they become set on this and makes it clear that they’re not going to budge on his views or demands even if you say there is nothing wrong with the friendship. 

2. Resistance 

When Y is not agreeing with the thought floated by X, she may show resistance by withdrawing or not acknowledging that request. Y may also directly say that “I do not want to do that to my friend for so long. You may feel that way, but I feel like there is nothing wrong with our friendship.” 

But as soon as X hears these side tracks and direct non-acceptance of his demands, it becomes clear to them that the answer is no and that this is not going as they wanted it to. 

3. Pressure 

When X realizes that he is not getting the response he wants from Y, X does not try to understand Y’s feelings but pushes her to change her mind. X may portray as if they want to walk about it but then the discussion turns into a one-sided lecture. 

X uses Y’s resistance as defiance and how X has been doing something to better their relationship all along, that his wish was something positive and heartfelt to begin with, something to protect their relationship. There are statements that are used that begin with: 

  • “I want what is best for us.” 
  • “I’m only thinking about our future”
  • “I only want you..” 
  • “When two people love each other”
  • “Don’t you love me enough to do this much for me?”
  • “If you cared about me at all..”
  • “If you weren’t so selfish/self-centered/…” 
  • “If you do this, it will only bring up closer” 
  • “It is hurting me that you don’t see it the way I see it. “ 

4. Threats 

As X faces resistance, he lets Y know that there will be a problem if Y does not get what they want. X might threaten to cause pain or unhappiness. They let you know how much they are suffering because of your actions. X might also use indirect threats, such as: 

  • “If this is how you are going to be, then we should see other people. “ 
  • “If such a tiny and reasonable request is what is bothering you already, then I don’t think we will work out in the long run anyway.” 
  • “It’s either them or me.” 
  • “If you cannot give me this assurance, then this is not the relationship I thought it was.” 
  • “It is important for our relationship that you do this. We will have a stronger bond after you do this.” 

5. Compliance 

After listening to X’s reasoning and bombarding, Y might start to rethink her initial decision. Y might give in and think maybe X does know better than her and is right about something that she isn’t privy to.

Despite the uncomfortableness that Y is feeling with her own thoughts and this problem in itself, she does not want to lose Y over such problems, so she complies after some time has passed. 

When a resolution has not been reached even after their talk, Y feels it is best to accept the proposition given by X as she may just want this phase over with or has really been exhausted with the topic of discussion.

The discussion only ever goes round and round and is never actually resolved or talked about in a meaningful way as X is only trying to get what they want. 

6. Repetition 

After acceptance, there is a quiet and loving period after getting their way. Even though Y is uncomfortable with the turn of events, the calm nature of the relationship makes them brush off whatever has happened, as a one-off. But X now notices that this type of guilting is an effective way to make Y concede their point or position, how long it took and how far it can go. 

And Y has also taken in that they might have to give in to what X is demanding. Hence creating a pattern that will naturally be followed until broken. 

Types of Emotional Blackmail 

There are different types of blackmailers based on different types of threats or promises they make. There may be variations but according to Dr. Forward, these are the four faces of blackmail:

1. Punishers

The punishers are those that let you know exactly what they want and the problem that will arise if you don’t do it. They may express it aggressively, give you the silent treatment, and the anger they see is always directed at you. 

There can be two types of punishers based on the treatment they are giving you. Active punishers are those that give you a direct threat and become very aggressive right away when their demand is not met. Eg: I will leave if you go back to work. 

 The passive punishers are those that sulk and in a passive-aggressive way, may not talk to you but you know they are angry with you just by looking.

Eg:  They will keep silent in the middle of the argument and you end up pleading with them to say anything at all. They are interested only in their side of the story and their demand, and they will overpower you to get it. 

2. Self-punishers 

These types of punishers turn the threat towards themselves. Something they will threaten to do to themself if they do not get their way.  They use fear or guilt to make you do what they want. They may say, “ I will kill myself if you don’t do this.” “Don’t argue with me or I will get depressed.” 

They tell you that all of these horrible threats arise because of an action you take, and it is easily avoidable if you just do what they want. They may come off as excessively needy and dependent and usually have difficulty taking responsibility for their own life. 

3. Sufferers 

They are guilting and blaming experts. They leave things up for interpretation and you have to guess correctly and ensure that you are doing exactly what they want. 

They put you through tests with the promise that something appealing or wonderful is waiting to happen if you pass their test and give them their way.  They don’t threaten like the self-punishers but it is left up to you to figure out what is the reason behind their discomfort and fix it, and if they are suffering it is your fault. 

They will take your inability to read them as a sign that you are not interested in them anymore and that is making them suffer. They go with the idea that if you really loved them, you’ll be able to figure it out and do better. They cry and only tell us the problem in their own time after you have stewed in a bit of stress and anxiety over what has gone wrong. 

The other type of sufferer is the one that likes to believe that the world and the circumstances are stacked against them. They try to work on the rescue-caretaker instinct that most people have.

They latch on and say that they will fail if they are not helped. Giving them help even one time may lead to leaving space for doing that over and over in the future as well. 

4. Tantalizers 

These types of emotional blackmailers are very subtle. They promise positive things such as career advancement, money, or love and make sure that you will only get it by behaving in the way that they want. 

Tantalizers create a never ensign loop of tests and demands and most of the time the prize may not materialize as well. They play on your fear of missing out on a “promising” opportunity. They offer you a reward and treat you nicely until they get it. They also ask you, knowing that you’ll say yes because otherwise they will feel hurt by your rejection of this proposal. 

Emotional manipulators can use one type of tactic most of the time, but they may change it depending on the situation or the person they are with. 

Emotional Blackmail in Relationships 

Emotional blackmail can be seen in family as well as work relationships, but it is also very common to see in romantic relationships.

In a relationship, the emotional blackmailer is always making the other partner feel guilty for not accepting their demands, shaming them if they do not comply, or subtly getting them to fear them so that they comply with their demands. 

They can make their partner comply by just complaining about how much they are suffering because of their non-compliance. They might also complain about how alone and miserable they feel in the relationship as soon as you stop complying with whatever they wanted. They may say things like: 

  • If you leave me, I will kill myself. 
  • If you talk to her, I will never talk to you ever again. 
  • I will be in pain if you do this to me.
  • Why can’t you just do this one thing I asked you?
  • You are being so selfish right now by not doing this.
  • I did so much for you and yet you cannot do this for me. 
  • If you do this for me, I will take you on that vacation you always wanted.

How to Recognize Emotional Blackmail When it’s Happening to You?

Have you ever wondered how people stay in a relationship they were getting emotionally manipulated in? There are friends or relatives we know who may fit what is being talked about in this article. You may yourself be relating to these, without ever realizing that this is what you went through. 

It is okay if you did not realize at first, that is how well manipulators disguise themselves. A manipulator uses Fear, obligation, and guilt as tools to obscure when they are manipulating someone.

According to Dr. Forward, in her book she has given a checklist to know if someone is emotionally blackmailing you, which includes, do people in your life:

  • Use money to get their way? 
  • Threaten to make your life difficult if you don’t do as they say? 
  • Threaten to end the relationship if you do not do what they want? 
  • Imply or tell you that they will neglect or hurt themselves if you don’t do what they want? 
  • You’re always giving more and more with no end in sight? 
  • Assume that you will give in and come back to them. 
  • Discount or ignore your feelings?
  • Make big promises which are contingent on you doing something they want but may not follow through with that big promise. 
  • Call you selfish, greedy, uncaring, and difficult when you do not compromise.

When faced with pressure, do you:

  • Feel resentful and frustrated? 
  • Feel guilty and think that you are a bad person for not giving into this?
  • Berate yourself for giving into their demands? 
  • Feel like you have to give in for the relationship to work? 
  • Feel like the only one they ask for things when they could ask others as well? 
  • Believe that you have a greater obligation to them? 

If you answered yes to even one of them, you have given way to the blackmailer. 

The following are the traits that make us vulnerable to blackmailers: 

  • Need for approval 
  • Fear of their anger 
  • Would do anything for peace and balance.
  • Extreme self-doubt
  • End up taking too much responsibility for other people’s life

If you answered yes to more than 1, you are or were being emotionally blackmailed. To avoid this in the future, there are some tips to improve your situation. 

How to Avoid Getting Emotionally Blackmailed? 

Before you deal with your blackmailer, there is something you need to do for yourself. Every day for the next few weeks, set aside a minimum of 15 minutes  and use the following three tools: 

1. Contract with myself 

Here you sign a contract that lists multiple promises that you would like to keep. The contract works to have in a tangible form and as a reminder to self, as well as clarify your goals. The goal is to read it out loud every day.

2. Make a power statement

Start practicing saying a power statement every day. It should be one short sentence that can be used to keep yourself grounded when you feel stressed or under pressure from the blackmailer. 

An example of a power statement is, “I can stand it.” They work out in a situation where your automatic thought is that you cannot stand this emotional situation. 

3. Create a set of self-affirming phrases 

As you are getting through a painful and stressful situation with your emotional blackmailer, it is important to affirm yourself of your strength and give yourself some recognition for it. Some examples of self-affirming phrases are: 

  • I ask for what I want even when it upsets them. 
  • I take a stand and hold my ground.
  • I do things for myself as well as for others.
  • I am clear about what I want. 
  • I don’t tell myself what I want is wrong. 
  • What I want is valid and acceptable and not unreasonable. 

Please note that it is difficult to change someone else’s behavior, you can only change how you react to them. 

Ways to Deal with Emotional Blackmail 

Emotional blackmail is a turbulent experience to go through, and even tougher to deal with when experiencing it. Tough as it might be, it is a step that needs to be taken to ensure your emotional, psychological as well as physical safety. 

These are some of the ways in which you can help yourself when you face emotional abuse: 

1. Change your point of view

This is for you to understand that some people will not understand or know your worth and refuse to take in what you are telling them. So instead of looking for ways to change them, look for ways that you can help yourself not suffer in these situations. 

2. Set boundaries 

Your boundaries have been violated by a blackmailer in the past. When you set strict boundaries, it becomes apparent to the blackmailer that you are not going to be easily manipulated to do what they want.

Instead, they might have to struggle to find a midway to continue being in each other’s lives. Knowing when to say no and standing by it can make all the difference in how they treat you. 

3. Confront the blackmailer 

If it is someone that you cannot leave and must save the relationship, these are some of the things you can try: 

  • I am not comfortable with how far you are pushing the edges of this relationship.
  • When I am telling you that I am unhappy with your actions, you are not taking me seriously. 
  • We need to communicate to find a better way to deal with our problems that do not leave me feeling like worthless and neglected. 
  • I am not going to tolerate your demands like this. 
  • I feel exhausted when I continuously comply with your demands and wishes. 
  • We can communicate and talk in a civilized manner, without anyone raising their voice or threatening consequences. 
  • I know what I deserve, and what I need is to be treated with respect. 

4. Get mental health support for them

Sometimes when people are unwilling to change even after you give them multiple chances and they are too set in their way to even think that they are wrong, maybe then it is time to enlist help from mental health professionals. Psychologists deal with victims of emotional abuse and blackmail as well as work with the blackmailer if they are willing to change. 

Understanding that one needs to go to therapy is a slow process and if not brought up delicately, may backfire. If there is no acceptance of any wrongdoings or willingness to change, then there is nothing else that you can do to save that relationship, if the willingness to change doesn’t exist in them. 

5. Love is without blackmail 

Real love and healthy love are based on real feelings and safety needs being met. If someone is blackmailing you, they are not entirely in love. They are trying to control your life and your decisions. They are doing this so that they become the center of your life. 

Remember that you are in a relationship where you need to be valued and respected and not threatened to do things according to others.

6. Remove yourself from that situation

Because the emotional blackmailer is so set in their ways, it will be difficult for them to reach a compromise or even see their point as wrong. They will always want you to do what they want and they can play this game for a long time. You can help yourself by taking one action of removing yourself from that situation. 

It is always difficult but not impossible, there is always a way to get out of any relationship. Share with trusted confidants or mental health professionals and take the necessary action required to help yourself out of an exhausting situation. 

7. Choose a healthy relationship

When you are in a relationship, you do not want it to end, but it is important to remember that you need to choose yourself over anything negative you may be experiencing in this relationship.

You can communicate to reach healthier compromises so that both have to come to a different decision and not the one that the blackmailer wanted to begin with. 

If the relationship is not being worked on truly effectively by both parties, it will fail eventually. So you get to decide to either be in a healthy relationship or to end it before it gets worse. If they are not willing to make healthier choices that you are bringing to them, then it may be time to choose yourself.

8. Confide in someone. 

As you are feeling blackmailed in the relationship, you should confide to other people you trust about the situation that you are in. Telling friends, family, and their friends, or family as well, may work out in helping them see that person is not so perfect after all. 

Airing your grievance is also a sign that you are giving other people when they start to think as to why you would want to leave that relationship. As you leave the relationship, you would also need people around you that are ready to help you leave that situation. 

Summing up 

Emotional blackmail is a tactic used by people to get their way. It is not always visible to the partner that this is what is happening to them, so it is important to note the signs.

It is difficult to go through as the person and the feelings for them are important to us but anyone who truly cares for you will be able to take the feedback that you are giving them and reflect on their behavior and willingness to change. 

Your feelings are being used against you to get what they desire and that can create a negative view of yourself and others, but it is important to note that once you start creating boundaries and start taking a stand for yourself, you will be on the path to a better relationship with yourself and others.

If you can endure the emotional blackmail that someone you love puts you through, you will be able to endure moving on from that relationship as well.

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